Sun and shadows on high school soccer

By Paul Cuadros

I walk out onto the lush green field that looks like a soft carpet nailed down tight. The light brown bare spots are starting to fill in. Above me the sun radiates with such intensity as if only to be a few miles from the earth.

Despite the punishing temperature, the boys have come early and are on the empty field kicking a ball around blasting it from one side to another.

They have waited all summer for this moment and now are giddy. The boys who show up the first day of tryouts are mostly Latinos and several of them gather around in a circle with a ball and juggle it around tapping it up into the air moving it from one player to the next.

A new soccer season begins at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City. N.C.

Across the state, boys and girls are stepping out into the hot air braving the sunbursts, getting acclimated to the heat to run, jump, kick, throw, hit, and sweat. Small-town newspapers herald the return of another athletic season with front-page features.

School is on the horizon and the boys of autumn prepare for victory in the waning days of summer. Defeat is an unknown word in August.

There is much to do as a high school soccer coach. New uniforms have been ordered and sent to the silk-screener. Balls have been stored in the garage waiting for the night when I will pump up each one.

Assistants have been lined up and forms distributed. The fall schedule has been carefully worked out with dates and times. An accident to one of our goals required a piece be sent to a local welder to be repaired.

Our practice field, a five-year volunteer project is entering into its final stage. No more practices on the baseball outfield. And I check off items from my list, goal anchors, new keys, ice packs, first aid kits, new coolers and water bottles, cable ties, agility ladders, speed rings, a soccer wall if I can find someone to donate the money, and scrimmage vests.

All the items either come out of my pocket or are donated by the community. If we don't get what we want this season there is always next year.

But this summer most of my time has been spent at Duke University's surgical outpatient center drinking bad coffee and fingering a black and red pager that buzzes to let you know when your player is out of surgery.

Two of my players suffered knee injuries while playing for their club teams. I have spent many mornings over the summer finding doctors, dealing with insurance forms, and waiting for that buzzer to go off.

I have spent hours explaining the procedures in English and in Spanish enough to qualify as a hospital interpreter. The one message I wanted to make clear to the families was to wake the player up and give him his pain medication. I have seen what happens when families let their kids sleep only to be awakened by his screams.

Not every coach does this. But if you care about your athletes it is the least you can do. None of the club coaches showed for either appointment.

I get a call from my athletic director. Some of my players will not be academically eligible. They flunked two classes the previous semester. It happens every year. There is an old adage in high school athletics, the better the athlete the worse the student. Kids who should be playing in their senior year will miss out because they skipped one too many classes.

But it doesn't matter. The season is going to start. People ask me what kind of team will you have this season. There is no way of knowing until the first day of tryouts when the kids show up.

Academic ineligibility, poor attendance, injuries, kids moving out of the district, you never know for sure who will show up. The opposite is true too. New kids, fresh talent, gifted freshmen. I tell the seniors, if the cloth looks good enough we'll stitch together a good team. It's a new season. And anything can happen.

That's the fun of being a high school coach. You take the talent that you have and you have to form the team.

At the small 1A school level this means often using very young talent. Since we have no junior varsity some sophomores and even some freshmen will get plenty of playing time. It also means coaching them quickly and effectively to understand your system and to improve their technical ability and tactical understanding.

When I coached club soccer, I could pick out the best players for my team, custom designing it to fill in gaps and having a head start in helping them to work together. With my high school team I have to flex my coaching muscles and skills to work with what I have and develop them into better players both on the field and off.

We have 21 games facing us for the regular season. Each game has meaning and pushes us closer to being conference champs and to make the state playoffs. Lose a game here or there and you are out.

Coming in second in the conference means hitting the road on a school bus for four hours trips to Western North Carolina for an evening playoff game. Last year, we traveled six hours to the Smoky Mountains to play on a postage-stamp size field. But that's all a part of the high school experience.

The guys continue to juggle the ball around their circle, stopping to pull off some Ronaldinho moves like catching the ball in the crook of the back of their knees and then flipping it up into the air. They argue about Giovanni dos Santos replacing Lionel Messi for Barcelona.

They are excited to start the season. And so am I.

Paul Cuadros, whose previous contribution to the YouthSoccerInsider was "A Case for High School Ball," is the state championship-winning head coach at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, N.C., and the author of "A Home on the Field, How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America." For more on the book, go to

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